On October 31, plaintiff Neuhtah Opiotennione, a 54-year old woman, filed a class action complaint against Facebook, Inc. in the Northern District of California, San Francisco Division (Neuhtah Opiotennione v. Facebook, Inc. 3:19-cv-07185-JSC) on behalf of older and female Facebook users. The users were allegedly discriminated against based on their age and gender from receiving advertising and information about financial service opportunities from Facebook advertisements; a violation of California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act, Cal. Civ. Code §§ 51, 51.5 and 52 through targeted advertisements to the desired audiences for financial institutions.
Facebook requires users to specify their age and gender as a condition of joining and using the platform, allowing Facebook to classify users and target them for specific advertisements. Therefore, a financial institution could decide to not advertise to a specific group, such as older individuals and women, as stated in the complaint. Facebook therefore, played a role by not allowing equal opportunity for its users to view advertisements. According to the complaint, “its discriminatory advertising and business practices for financial services opportunities classify and segregate Facebook users based on protected characteristics and deny them equal treatment in Facebook’s business establishment based on protected characteristics such as age and gender.”
As of September, Facebook has allowed credit-related advertisements to older individuals and women, however, other finance related advertisements have discriminated against older individuals and women. Pew Research indicates that 69 percent of U.S. Facebook users are adults. 75 percent of U.S. women and 63 percent of U.S. men use Facebook. Additionally, 46 percent of U.S. adults 65 and older, and 68 percent of U.S. adults between the ages of 50 to 64, use Facebook. Facebook’s site offers insight into how advertisers can classify and segment audiences for advertisements, or ignore a demographic altogether.
The complaint states that Facebook’s COO, Sheryl Sandberg has called age and gender advertisement targeting part of Facebook’s “special sauce.” Advertisers select the audience segment for an advertisement and only the users within that segment will be shown an ad. Audiences can be segmented based on age, gender, and location. Facebook makes it possible for advertisers to exclude groups from advertisements, including older individuals and women as alleged in the complaint. Specified examples of targeted advertisement include: AAFMAA for a $5,000 loan for 1.5 percent APR for individuals 24 to 40 who live in the U.S.; Webull stock trading service advertisement for men 20 years and older who live in the U.S.; Partbnb sent an advertisement to men ages 30 to 50 who live or were recently in the U.S. about investment Airbnb properties, claiming Partbnb will help investors buy shares in high yield operating Airbnb properties; Ladder sent an advertisement to individuals 25 to 45 who live in the U.S. about life insurance, claiming it’s so simple you can do it on your phone.
This is not the first time Facebook has been sued for discriminatory advertisement practices. Previously, the Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing & Equal Opportunity filed a complaint against Facebook on behalf of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for violating the Fair Housing Act and discriminating against individuals of certain ethnicities by excluding them from certain housing advertisements.